Monthly Archives: November 2011

Colm Tóibín Interview: Tell me something that you are sure is true

Prior to his appearance in UCD, novelist Colm Tóibín talks gay babies, Dana, emigration and Starbucks with Sally Hayden.

It’s not every day you get the chance to chat to one of Britain’s top 300 intellectuals. Apart from the eternal question of Rice Krispies versus Coco Pops, this was Otwo’s first notable thought this morning. Even more notable because this intellectual is most definitely Irish.

Colm Tóibín is rankled about the recent Observer list too, but for a different reason. “I thought 300 was a lot of people, and some of the other people were not very smart at all. If they had said I was one of fifty I would have been happier. They should have ranked us!”

It is twenty-one years since Tóibín wrote The South. His first novel dealt with the topics of immigration and sense of self, themes that are recurring throughout his subsequent works. It is set in Barcelona, where Tóibín himself moved in 1975, immediately after graduating from UCD. A cyclical market and an unprecedented global downturn have ensured that our generation are fleeing the fatherland just as hastily. At the recent Irish Economic Forum Tóibín called this a “tragedy.”

Whilst noting the mind-expanding benefits of spending anything from a year in Sydney to two weeks in Costa da Brava, he points out the serious detriment of the “disaster” of relocation in the longer term. “The entire business of permanent migration, of losing your roots and your relationship to the place you were brought up in, and you suddenly think twenty years later that everyone drinks in the same bar as they did twenty years ago. You think everyone at home is the same age as they were when you left, when in fact they’ve got two kids.

“Your dream of home now doesn’t equal the reality. Your entire relationship to your peer group and your family begins to dissolve and change fundamentally, and you end up a decade later coming home less and less, and having less and less connection to home.”

Upon his return to Ireland after three years he found it backward in every way. “To give you one small example, in 1978, when I came back to Dublin, there was one coffee machine in the entire city.”

Now Dubliners are besieged by the epitome of the American coffee dream itself, in the form of Starbucks and its various competitors. However for Tóibín, modern Ireland is still founding wanting. “I think in most families there’s an absolute innate racism where you learn not to say things, but if your son or daughter came home with somebody from a different race you would be very concerned about that”.

The same applies to sexuality, negative attitudes to which still lie latent, the explicitness of which, according to Tóibín, we’ve learnt to “disguise”. “There’s no overt homophobia in political discourse, or the newspapers, or on radio, but it doesn’t mean that anybody longs to have a gay baby.”

Tóibín’s laugh is as infectious as his books are miserable. During our brief time talking Otwo chuckled, giggled, chortled and guffawed. His latest work is a film script. “I can’t write comedy. This really was a comedy, I swear to you. But I looked at it yesterday and thought ‘we’ll have to get sad music for it now.’”

As a patron and producer of the arts, he is delighted about the recent election of Michael D. Higgins to the Presidency. “He is stylish, he is cultured, he is articulate, and as he said himself, being old was not a secret he was keeping. So [I’m] very pleased with the result, I think he’s a most civilised human being. Perhaps more civilised than most of the people who elected him.”

Having said that, he did wonder if these voters deserved Dana instead. “I think it was a good idea to accuse Martin McGuinness of something, but it was hard to think up of the others. Dana had American nationality, who cares? Mary Davis was on some state board. Yeah, well, I’m on the Arts Council, I was appointed by Fianna Fáil. They needed someone competent, they appointed me. She didn’t defend herself enough by saying ‘would you shut up’.”

Sensing a prime chance to shape the political future of Ireland, Otwo slyly suggests President Tóibín for 2018. “You think I would tour around the country telling everyone that I thought I had qualities that were presidential? I think self-deprecation is actually fundamental to citizenship. I would hate the National Ploughing Championships. I would hate getting into wellies!”

Three times a Booker Prize potential, Tóibín also has no interest in the “theatre of cruelty” that are awards ceremonies. “I actually knew Anthony Burgess, and he wouldn’t go to the Booker ceremony unless he was sure he had won. It was that year that his wonderful novel Earthly Powers was beaten by some novel by William Golding, and Burgess just said ‘why does anyone think I’m just going to go and travel all the way over from Monaco and sit there and not win?’”

Though never previously renowned as a breeding grounds for British intellectuals, with the year of the Queen, the times they are a-changing. “UCD is a great place. I kneel down every morning and thank God I didn’t go to Trinity.”

Otwo tells Tóibín to not give up on the comedy.

Colm Tóibín will speak to UCD’s English and Literary Society on Wednesday 23rd November in Theatre O (Newman Building) at 6:30pm

United We Stand

Published on 15th November 2011 by the University Observer

On October 31, amidst widespread applause, a denial of the wishes of the United States and a threatened cut off of funds, Palestine became the 195th full member of UNESCO. The vote came in overwhelmingly at 107 to 14, with 52 abstentions.

This step will cost the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organisation a quarter of its yearly budget: 22 percent (about $70 million) contributed by the US, along with at least another 3 percent from Israel and Canada.

The seemingly petulant American behaviour grounds itself in 1990 legislation prohibiting funding to; “the United Nations or any specialised agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organisation the same standing as a member state”, and 1994 law banning payments to “any affiliated organisation of the United Nations which grants full membership as a state to any organisation or group that does not have the internationally recognised attributes of statehood.”

Presumably then the same response will also be applied to additional situations. Admission to UNESCO presages Palestine’s possible acceptance into other agencies and sections of the UN that could include the World Health Organisation, the World Intellectual Property Organisation and the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Security Council is already due to vote on their application next week, with the US desperately trying to find allies so as to avoid using their own veto.

Furthermore there have been suggestions that UNESCO membership could set a precedent for acceptance into the International Criminal Court. This would have interesting consequences considering the US and Israel’s refusal to partake in it. If Palestine was recognised it is possible that thereon all crimes committed by Israelis on Palestinian soil would come under the jurisdiction of the ICC.

Israel certainly is assessing the possible implications of its change in position, with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu immediately moving to build 2,000 new homes in settlements around Jerusalem, withholding tax monies Israel collects for the Palestinian Authority and cancelling “VIP passes”, which enable senior Palestinian officials to travel freely. These actions have been met with anger by opposition leader Tzipi Livni, who says that Binyamin is not focused on peace or prepared to make the concessions that it would entail.

UNESCO states its purpose as being to contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms. The organisation enjoys official relations with 322 NGOs, encourages the “free flow of images and words” through support for the freedom of press, and designates World Heritage Sites. However worthy this may seem, considering its diverse membership it is to be expected that controversy and conflicts will arise in the course of its decisions.

This is not the first time the US has threatened funding cuts to get their way within the organisation. In 1974 UNESCO voted to exclude Israel because of alleged damage done during archaeological excavations in Jerusalem, which were labelled a “cultural crime against humanity”. Israel was readmitted in 1977 after the US threatened to withdraw contributions worth $40 million.

Enhancing a fraught relationship, in 1984 the US itself completely withdrew because of alleged communist and Soviet Russia sympathies displayed by the organisation, only rejoining in 2003 under George Bush. UNESCO and Israel also came into conflict again when, in 2009, the former named Jerusalem the Arab Capital of Culture.

Good work by the body is not disputed. In a visit to their Paris headquarters this year, Hillary Clinton announced: “I am proud to be the first secretary of state from the United States ever to come to UNESCO, and I come because I believe strongly in your mission.”

However, like the long defunct League of Nations before it, the UN is constantly fighting questions as to its relevance and whether it commands any real power. Its highlighted reliance on the temperament of its funding members threatens to belittle any strong statements it may make, whether through words or actions such as state recognition.

The November 2nd statement by UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova merely serves to highlight this incapacity, as she speaks of the global losses that will immediately result from the US funding withdrawal, and asks Congress and the American people to look for a way forward.

The extent to which the US is ignoring popular global opinion must also be assessed. The resounding support for Palestine included countries in which the US has an interest, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait and Libya, and many perceive the recent development as just another blow to America’s image abroad. Considering the $6 billion reputedly given annually to Israel by the US, $70 million is insubstantial. It remains to be seen whether the US will reconsider its position, and until then how exactly UNESCO will manage its budget.

Helping Others Help Yourself

Published on 1st November by the University Observer.


With a growing number of organisations offering students the chance to do volunteer work overseas, Sally Hayden examines who really benefits from these initiatives

At some stage even the most hardhearted amongst us feel the urge to better the world we live in. While societies such as St. Vincent de Paul offer opportunities to volunteer in Dublin on a regular basis, more and more students are being drawn to bringing their goodwill overseas. Sun, sea and service can appear to be a winning combination for an alternative summer.

Each year droves of unskilled idealistic students head from the West to the developing world for between two weeks and two months. Tour operators have recognised growing demand for the feel-good factor, and ‘voluntourism’ trips, combining sightseeing with charity work, are becoming much more prevalent. Cynics call it ‘poverty tourism’. Building houses or teaching in orphanages can certainly feel very rewarding, but is such a short period of time long enough to make this much revered ‘difference’, or are we simply adding to existing problems?

UCD Volunteer Overseas’ (UCDVO) auditor Sinead Hughes recognises that there are positives and negatives to having such a limited time abroad. “I think short-term volunteering is more intense. You get a lot more done in a short time, I think if you were there for longer it would be more relaxed so in that way it’s good to go out and be efficient with your time,” she says. “But then I guess if it’s a case where you’re going into a country for four weeks and then not coming back then it has negative effects on the whole community, but with VO, I think the way we’re coming back year after year has a positive aspect.”

After working in a centre for children in Delhi the summer before last, third year medical student Rachel Rynne-Lyons admits she did consider whether it was unreasonable to become close to the children when she was only going to leave them again. “I thought, ‘was it fair?’ But I think a lot of the places that VO sends people to have a continuous system of volunteers and they’re used to it, and it’s really exciting for them because they get to meet new people, and new things to teach. We’re such a different culture and I think we try to be really caring with kids, I think it’s just natural instinct, to girls especially, and then to become really close to the kids and then leave isn’t fair but I think it’s good for both of us to have, to make a connection even if it’s just for a month. You see that they do have someone all the time. And also the kids are really clever and as much as you think that you’ve made them fall in love with you they’re very smart kids and they kind of know how to win everybody over, they’re really cute.”

During the course of their studies at UCD approximately twenty-five per cent of students undertake a course in some area of development, a statistic that demonstrates a legitimate and commendable interest in the field. However, Dr Patrick Walsh of the UCD Development Studies Department sees volunteering overseas as an extension of this education, more of a benefit to the student who embarks on it than to the locals that are their target.

“I think it is what it is, to give relatively privileged students in Ireland the chance to see firsthand the conditions people have to live. It’s an important thing for people to see. When we’re giving money to students to do that I think we understand that this is for the development of the UCD student,” Dr. Walsh explains. “It’s not just about having an impact in Africa; it’s also about the education of the UCD student to have a more global mind. You could have views on a person’s trade and whether aid works in a big macro sense but this is not about that, this is just about UCD students broadening their horizons. I think you’re looking at a different return to the money.”

Foreign aid has arguably caused more harm than good in many regions when benefactors fail to properly research the local economy and examine the potential knock-on effects of their efforts. There are arguments with a sound basis that suggest that free volunteer work can lead to local unemployment, or free food to an exaggerated inflation of local farmer’s prices, and thus result in far-reaching negative impacts for the local community. Dr Walsh also notes that aid volunteers are setting the required spending, rather than letting locals or a government do it themselves. “You’re enforcing a curriculum, a kind of value setting in the way you do things.”

Dr Walsh believes that if small projects are undertaken and tackled effectively, these can be far more useful than trying to surmount grand tasks. “Obviously the volunteer work is very community based, it can be very so-so, but they’ve done clever things. [UCDVO] brought second-hand computers, they fixed them, they’ve shipped them into Tanzania, and they brought them up to Eritrea. They have the skills. These are probably relatively small projects but they do them very effectively.”

Dr Walsh says that avoiding negative consequences can be best done by keeping your aims measurable and targeting those who need it most. “In general, if you go to an area [that] is the poorest of the poor, they genuinely have nothing. Nobody’s coming to build the road, nobody’s coming to fix the hospital. It’s more about going inside a community where you do this little job. It’s like going to an old person’s home, and you fix the shower or you fix the gate for them. It was not going to be done by someone else. And I think once the project is careful that you’re not displacing people, that you’re doing something that was otherwise not going to be done then I think it’s ok. [With] any development project, or any intervention, you should be very careful that you’re not causing unintended bad outcomes. You should test yourself against these kinds of questions.”

Auditor of the UCD World Aid Society, James Mac Mahon reiterates the need to take care when picking your project and says “you can’t blame someone for being optimistic and wanting to help, but people need to know where they can apply themselves and where they are needed”. The World Aid Society is a well-known supporter of fair trade, and are also currently in the foundation stages of their own alternative travelling scheme, an exchange option with Africa. Aeshi University in Ghana encourages African graduates to remain in Africa, an anti-brain drain that is vital for sustainable development. “It’s encouraging Africa from the inside and promoting things like the middle class, and working it up, helping establish companies and businesses.” Bringing their students to UCD for a term could be very empowering, giving them experiences and skills that they could use later to enhance their own region, whilst UCD students attending Aeshi could likewise learn a great deal from their African counterparts.

Changing attitudes and enhanced understanding are essential for global interaction and sustainable development. Hughes points out that in the long term a student can be suitably moved to dedicate further time, or even their profession, to improving the areas they’ve witnessed. “There are so many of our past volunteers who have focused their career on it, which greatly benefits that country. That’s really positive. And as well sending the money across could create a dependency that you don’t want to create in the country. If you just feed money into them, when you stop what happens then?”

UCDVO holds information evenings annually, encouraging applications and holding interviews to guarantee they have the best teams possible. Eagerness, diversity and skills are all components that can secure you a place on a future project. As Hughes says, “Things like enthusiasm, people who can work on their own initiative. Obviously people who have done construction or teaching before would be a benefit, or if they’ve got languages, exposure to working in hard conditions. But I think the main thing is to get a diverse group from different schools and characters.”

Finding the money necessary to fund a student’s time abroad is another issue with temporary volunteerism. A lot of providers will often charge inflated prices, with no encouragement or suggestions to aid potential volunteers. However, with UCDVO there is a lot of support in place. “They have to raise €2,500 and there’s the student committee that provides support for them so I think it’s daunting at the start, but once you get going it’s fine. People do bag packs, we have Rás UCD, we did the Wicklow 200 cycle and got sponsorship for that, so there are a lot of generic events that they can latch onto, and then they can do their own things as well so it’s very doable. Most people reach beyond their targets.”

Most volunteers recount a similar tale of gaining a new insight and understanding of the plight of others. Rynne-Lyons’ experience taught her to focus on a more global picture. “It sounds a bit ridiculous but you become more realistic about things you would have usually worried about when you come home. It puts things into perspective a little bit more.” This sentiment is echoed by Hughes. “I think on a personal level it teaches you a lot about yourself. How to deal in situations that push you outside your boundaries, and you appreciate everything once you come home.”

Though it is noble and commendable to want to change the world you live in, opportunities to volunteer abroad should always be tested for unintentional harms. Sustainable projects that operate on a manageable scale without displacing locals should be focused on, and volunteers should always be aware of keeping their agenda in line with what is best for the locality. Meanwhile a willingness to learn as much as you teach will ensure that you gain the best personal return on your investment, and realise that the difference you aim to champion will be as much to do with yourself as with anyone else.